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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Album Review: Rose Kemp - ‘Golden Shroud’

‘Golden Shroud’ (2010), 12 Year Stretch TYS0002, CD, 43m 7s, £11
The word ‘fuck’ has a long and proud history in non-mainstream music, and the underground in general. At one time a Fuck tee shirt was a token of political radicalism, and dropping the F-bomb in a song could have a considerable subversive impact (as in ‘Working Class Hero’). Like salt or sugar in food though, people got a taste for the hit, and it was overused, until it was nearly meaningless. Now mainstream music is full of motherfuckers and assholes, edited out for the radio cuts, but there nevertheless, for their considerable selling power.
The first syllable of this album, in its pure voiced, diatonic harmony, is the most arresting ‘fuck’ I’ve heard in music for a long time. It’s used for just the right reason as well: to express a powerful emotional response, of the sort that really does make the word come out of your mouth, in this case in the face of a realisation of mortality.
The (multitracked) choral passage that kicks off with that expletive has a sweet sound, and although it is homophonic it moves in parallel harmonies that give it a medieval feel. It gradually becomes less diatonic, in an ear pleasing, tonal way, with chromaticism creeping in, until it ends, hanging on a chillingly astringent upper-register dissonance, and then the guitar comes in. And it’s one of the most dramatic moments I can recall hearing on a recording.
Rose Kemp is the daughter of Maddy Prior and Rick Kemp of the seminal English folk rock band Steeleye Span, which makes her folk royalty. You know the kind of thing: the neatly indie looking kids you see at folk festivals, milking their parents’ reputations to get gigs and distribution for their anodyne and backward looking folksong. They usually espouse a conservatism that undermines the previous generation’s work in opening the stifling world of traditional music up to innovation and creativity, saying to the world ‘Look! Folk is trendy! It must be, because I play it, and I’m a cardigan wearing hipster!’ Yeah, the kids who think being generic is the same as being idiomatic; who think good execution on their melodeons and tenor banjos is an acceptable substitute for musicianship. Well, folk royalty she may be by birth, but Rose Kemp ain’t one of them. Praise the lord.
The moment in that opening track, Black Medik II, when the guitar comes in is  fantastically dramatic for a few reasons. Firstly, it is in stark contrast to the beautiful vocal arrangement that precedes it: it has a thick, heavy syrupy distortion, the kind of fuzz where you can almost hear the paper of the cones buzzing; and it is not just a stylistic incongruity, but a true textural contrast, from a pure, smooth, sine-like vocal sound to something deeply abrasive. And then what happens is that it launches into a riff, a slow doomy riff of nasty, noisy, headbanging intensity, and she really starts to sing.
Throughout this album there is metal guitar, idiomatic doom-metal guitar riffing (which Kemp squeezes out of her Telecaster with obvious relish). But no solos, no lead part. No need. Rose Kemp is doing it with her voice. People like to use that hackneyed phrase, ‘using the voice like an instrument’, but this shit is for real! She swoops from end to end of an extensive range; she squawks and shrieks; she screams out with rock hoarseness like Joplin; and she decorates her phrases with perfectly delivered folk ornaments. She reaches into you with her voice, she grabs you, and she shakes you like a rag doll.
Her previous two releases use the heavy guitar sparingly, like a seasoning, and they are both collections of songs, as tends to be the case with albums. Golden Shroud is different: it is a single long form piece in three movements, and it uses a restricted textural palette in comparison to her earlier recordings. There are two instrumental textures here, quiet doom metal and loud doom metal (with and without singing), and there are some passages of choral homophony. That’s not a lot to work with: it puts a lot of pressure on the quality of the composition and performance to maintain interest, particularly in tracks that are over fifteen minutes in length.
Kemp pulls it off in the first instance by making extremely creative use of the limited musical resources she has chosen to allow herself: her incredibly dramatic and arresting vocals help to generate some variety, but this album is a masterclass in arranging for a narrow range of textures, modes and harmonies, and in exploiting the dramatic potential of dynamics. And it’s not just the vocals, but also the ostensibly quite unassuming instrumental performances, that have the charismatic aplomb and dramatic force to keep you (or me at any rate) pumping the air with your fist, even when listening at a moderate volume. I mean, this is heavy!
And compositionally, she’s off the scale. I very commonly get the impression that there is no necessary connection between the lyrics of a song and its musical content: another set of words could have been substituted and nothing would sound out of place. Here it’s all very much of a piece: words, notes and harmonies have been wrangled together until they are mashed up into a single twisted rope of terrifying, moving, uncompromising, and ultimately uplifting meaning.
I can’t possibly give a close analytical reading of this whole album: it would take a whole book, or at least far more words than I could reasonably expect anyone to read in a CD review! But I’d like to: there’s such a density of content here that it would be a very rewarding exercise. Lyrically Kemp’s themes revolve around paganism and witchcraft, in a very dark way, full of blood and bitterness; but this is very far from the daft, Hammer horror fantasies of the doom metal mainstream. This is serious, metaphorical language, raw with the pain of human existence, and gelid with the certainty of its cessation: there is a nuanced environmentalism in these songs (or this piece), which is alert to the complexities of the issue and concerned with it’s relationship to lived experience. And it is also, ultimately, and despite the impression you might get without paying close attention to the lyrics, hopeful. Whether this work is animated by a religious paganism, or it simply finds it a useful metaphor, I’m not sure, and it doesn’t really matter. There is a lot to get you thinking, and feeling, whatever your own perspective.
Rick Kemp, Rose’s dad, was the first bass player that I really became aware of as a musician in their own right. Despite my first musical love being punk, it was hearing his lyrical upper register lines and thunderous chords on my mum’s Steeleye Span records that helped to form my sense of what bass playing is about. He is my first major influence as a musician, so it seems I owe the Kemp family a double debt now, because in this recording Rose Kemp has given me a gift that will stay with me for life. This degree of stylistic novelty is rarely expressed in such a coherent idiom, or with such total artistic clarity. I hope you can get even a fraction of the pleasure from this music that I have.

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